One thing became abundantly clear as the Detroit Tigers failed in their quest for a World Series championship in 2013 – their bullpen must get better.
The list of relievers that failed the Tigers a season ago consists of Brayan Villarreal (command), Octavio Dotel (body), Jeremy Bonderman (skills), Jose Valverde (everything), Phil Coke (command), Darin Downs (stuff), and Al Alburquerque (command).
When this many failing parts are at play, an overhaul becomes instantly necessary. Those that will be welcomed back and expected to be in the mix, you ask? They would be Bruce Rondon, Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque, and Luke Putkonen. Joaquin Benoit, the newly labeled free agent, will also get a long look.
The Tigers needs in the bullpen are clear.
- A lock down closer.
- A bona fide setup man.
- A true lefty specialist.
A remodel of this nature will not come cheaply. The Tigers have already parted ways with Jose Veras and Downs. With three $20M/year players (Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder) already on the roster along with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, and Alex Avila working through their arbitration years, GM Dave Dombrowski will have a difficult task in keeping the payroll numbers respectable.
Last offseason Dombrowski gambled on Rondon, and lost. Oddly enough, the up and down nature of Rondon’s season really put the Tigers in a jam. Consider his preseason anointing as the closer, which was followed by a terrible spring. This cost the Tigers the option of signing a closer prior to the season.
Rondon then got it together, after one call-up and subsequent demotion, to pitch a strong July. This pre-trade deadline performance led the Tigers to believe that they were only one relief arm away from having the proper mix for the stretch run, and so they added Veras and called it good. Rondon dominated in August but then got hurt in September when it was too late to add to the roster.
Imagine if the Tigers had Rondon’s arm in the postseason. Things could have turned out much differently. He is reportedly healthy and will pitch in Venezuela this offseason leading up to spring training. Hopefully he brings stability and certainty to his roster spot in 2014 because he is a difference-maker.
Here then, is my ideal Tigers bullpen for 2014:
Closer – Joe Nathan
Setup #1 – Joaquin Benoit or Grant Balfour
Setup #2 – Bruce Rondon
Lefty #1 – JP Howell or Javier Lopez (Howell will be cheaper, both incredibly effective)
Lefty #2 – Drew Smyly
Last 2 – Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen
The good news is Rondon, Smyly, Alburquerque, and Putkonen are all extremely affordable. Alburquerque is the only one of the four entering arbitration. In total, these four will only cost the Tigers about $3M next year. Therefore, Dombrowski can open up the bankroll for the other three slots.
Nabbing Joe Nathan as closer is vital to the plan. Yes, he turns 39 this month. Yes, he wants a 2-year deal. And yes, he is still flat out dominant. In his 2-year run in Texas, Nathan, a notorious Tiger-killer from his days in Minnesota, converted 80 of his 86 saves opportunities while striking out well over a batter an inning.
Nathan turned down a $9M, 1-year option from Texas in hopes of getting a 2-year deal. The Tigers should give it to him, and they should spend $18-20M in so doing. Nathan, barring injury, would once and for all wipe away any concerns about who gets the ball in the 9th inning in Detroit, and also be the perfect 2-year bridge to the Bruce Rondon era.
The setup man, if it isn’t Benoit, should be Balfour (I know, I know, I don’t like him either, but he’s good). Both players are old, as they each will be entering their age-36 seasons. Both had outstanding 2013 seasons though and are accustomed to pitching in high octane situations. Hand out a 2-year deal for $12M to either one and the 8th inning is secure.
As for the lefty specialist, either Howell or Lopez will do, but Howell will come cheaper. He made $2.85M for the Dodgers in 2013, will turn 31 in April, and held lefties to a .164 batting average against last season.
Lopez made $4.25M in ’13 for the Giants. He’ll turn 37 next July and held lefties to a .156 batting average against. Having Lopez, Benoit/Balfour, and Nathan would make for an AARP-esque back three in the rotation, but they are all lethal, and when combined with Rondon and Smyly, would immediately elevate Detroit’s pen into one of the best in the business.
Now that the Tigers have their man in Brad Ausmus, it is time to address the next most glaring weakness on the roster – the bullpen. And don’t think for one second that Mike Ilitch will let a trivial little thing like a wallet get in the way of a proper revamping.
For part 1 of this series, focusing on the infield, click here.
For part 2 of this series, focusing on the outfield, click here.
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